01 - Dismembered According to the Rigor of Harmony: A Structuralist Reading of Zosimos' Visions

For a text about a practical alchemical procedure, Zosimos of Panopolis' Visions abounds in violent and bizarre imagery: a man is harmonically dismembered, people are boiled alive, and the dismembered bits of a snake are used to create a step for a temple. In this paper, I use the text's internal structure to examine the relationship between this imagery and the practical and spiritual alchemical processes they are meant to represent.

While scholarship on Zosimos has been slim, the Visions has drawn attention from scholars working in a variety of fields. Early historians of science mined the text for the practical alchemical process encoded within Zosimos' dreams (Hopkins 1938). Other scholars focused on the gruesome and vivid imagery, interpreting the text through psychoanalytic (Jung 1967), Gnostic (Stolzenberg 1999), and Neoplatonic (Grimes 2018) lenses. While many of these approaches utilize strands of thought that would have been familiar to Zosimos, they interpret the text through another system of thought. In order to interpret the text through its own internal logic, I adopt a structuralist approach similar to the one proposed by Peradotto (1984), who argued that paradigmatic and syntagmatic relationships are equally important in studying narrative: meaning is encoded in both individual episodes (paradigm) and the order in which those episodes are arranged (syntagm).

I argue that the Visions charts Zosimos' transformation into a competent and capable alchemist and that this transformation is mediated through his regular and repeated emphasis on proper method and systematicity. In order to do so, I first divide the text into the syntagmatic pattern of dissolution - cooking - metamorphosis, which furnishes comparanda in Greek myth (specifically the myths of Dionysus, Pelops, Pelias, and Python) and in practical and spiritual alchemical procedures. Next, I focus on the paradigmatic substitutions for the agent of dissolution in the mythic material and the Visions. An examination of the mythic material demonstrates that the skill of the agent can increase or decrease the horror of the dissolution. Pindar's sparse account of Tantalus' dismemberment of Pelops for a feast (Ol.1.25-53) is far less horrifying than Ovid's graphic account of Pelias' inexperienced daughters hacking their father to death with swords (Met.7.297-349). A skilled agent is also important in the Visions, where Zosimos stresses the importance of proper method for alchemical practice (MA X.91-7). Accordingly, an examination of the agents of dissolution in the Visions reveals that, through a number of intermediary steps and with the assistance of various instructors, Zosimos transforms from an unknowledgeable spectator to a skilled and knowledgeable practitioner capable of instructing others. Since the events of the text reflect both practical and spiritual alchemical processes, the Visions represents Zosimos' transformation into a methodically sound alchemist, simultaneously capable of transmuting copper into gold and purifying his soul by liberating it from the constraints of the body.


Devin Lawson, Bryn Mawr College